Strung out along the photogenic shores of Lake Catemaco, circled by looming hills born of long-extinct volcanoes, and fringed by one of Mexico’s last remaining tracts of rainforest, the sleepy backwater town of Catemaco feels like its own little corner of the earth. Emerging from the air-conditioned cocoon of an ADO coach into what must be Mexico’s prettiest bus station, the low afternoon sun reflected thickly in the surface of the lake, it’s not hard to understand why Catemaco has become the epicentre of Mexican witchcraft, sorcery, and shamanism.
The natural setting, the isolation, and – if you believe certain of the locals – the area’s potent supernatural properties have proved the perfect breeding ground for a unique brand of folk magic: a strange brew of indigenous paganism with Catholic ritualism and occult iconography.
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Each March, Catemaco comes alive as hundreds of sorcerers, shamans and witches from across Mexico descend on White Monkey Hill, a mountain overlooking the lake, to perform a mass spiritual cleansing ceremony. Far from an ancient rite, though, this event first took place in 1970, the initiative of the town’s brujo mayor (great sorcerer) Gonzalo Aguirre. It was Aguirre who turned Catemaco’s witchcraft tradition – until then a quiet local enterprise centred largely on traditional herbalist practices – into a tourist attraction.
His own origin story reflects Catemaco’s emergence from obscurity into Mexico’s collective consciousness. Beginning his career as the driver of the former brujo mayor, Aguirre eventually assumed the position himself and attained a degree of celebrity, performing televised rituals for presidents and actors. This brought travellers and money to Catemaco, but it also spawned a new generation of brujos keen to cash in on the town’s freshly expanded reputation.
Some in Catemaco will tell you that the witchcraft practised in the town has taken on a sinister edge in recent decades. Some of the rituals carried out at the yearly mass cleansings on White Monkey Hill, such as the sacrificing of chickens and goats, are common to pre-colonial paganism across Mexico. Others, like the burning of giant inverted pentagrams, chants invoking the Devil, and other Crowleyesque borrowings from the canon of modern Western occultism, bear little relation to Catemaco’s heritage of ‘white witchcraft’. This development is not limited to the annual mass gatherings. Throughout the year, visitors can enlist the services of the town’s brujos for spiritual cleansing, herbal medicinal treatments, and fortune telling. Rather more sinister are the black magic practices, often centred around revenge and involving pins, dolls, toads, and satanic invocations. Many brujos will cheerfully offer both – provided, of course, that the price is right.
Witchcraft is big business in Catemaco. Browsing the town’s magic shops, their shelves cluttered with wax dolls and vials of strangely coloured liquids, is an experience in itself, but you don’t have to travel far in town before you’re offered the chance to take things up a gear with a consultation with a local brujo. The most rudimentary ceremony on offer is a limpia espiritual (spiritual cleansing), which involves standing stock-still while a chanting, white-clad shaman brushes you with rosemary leaves, then rubs an egg on your head, cracks it into a glass of water, and interprets the gooey shapes as they dance around the glass.
Even for a sceptic, it’s heady stuff, with incense burning in the background, the skeletal visage of Santa Muerte looking on, and Lucifer jostling for wall space with the Virgin of Guadalupe. This commercialisation of magic has caused something of a divide in Catemaco between those accepted to be genuine shamans, and those shysters looking to hoodwink gullible tourists. For those who have travelled too far to care, though, or aren’t convinced there’s a difference in the first place, undergoing a ceremony is a memorable experience, and the whole culture is a fascinating fusion of paganism and Christianity.
Suitably spiritually refreshed, you can turn your attention to exploring one of Mexico’s last great wildernesses. A relaxing way to start is with a boat trip on Lake Catemaco, the area’s star attraction. The attractive lakefront promenade is thronged with food carts selling tegogolo – a freshwater snail considered to be a local delicacy, not to mention a purported aphrodisiac – and boat operators who will happily take you on a tour of the lake’s highlights.
A colony of stump-tailed macaques lives on Isla de los Changos, relocated here as part of a university study in 1974; 45 years on, they still look slightly miffed at having to live in these confined surroundings, rather than the rainforests of their native Thailand. They are, at least, quieter than their neighbours on Isla Agaltepec: a group of howler monkeys whose ear-splitting cries can be heard from the lakeshore. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can finish off your tour of the lake with a swim at one of the beaches – just keep your wits about you. Morelet’s crocodiles nest here, although the boat drivers are keen to make it known that they don’t have a taste for humans.
Back on dry land, the remarkable eco reserve Nanciyaga offers the chance to explore the pristine rainforest of Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve. Guided tours see guests spotting scarlet macaws and howler monkeys in the treetops, and learning about the hundreds of species of life-giving medicinal plants which were the original basis of Catemaco’s herbalist witchcraft tradition. If a full-on shamanic ritual is a bridge too far for you, then try the more relaxing experience of a traditional temezcal sauna, take a dip in a natural mineral mud bath, or just sit back and soak up the intoxicatingly strange atmosphere of this far-flung corner of Mexico.
Header image: Lakeside jetties in Catemeco © Robert Briggs/Shutterstock